Afghanistan Troop Draw-Down: Shift from Counter-Insurgency to Counter-Terrorism?

July 18th, 2011

On June 22, President Barack Obama announced that 10,000 of the 33,000 surge troops that were deployed in 2009 to augment U.S. military operations in Afghanistan would be withdrawn by the end of this year.  This will be followed by the withdrawal of all surge troops by the end of the summer of 2012. This draw-down in troop levels comes shortly after a joint operation between the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the U.S. Military Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) led to the detection and killing of Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaida and mastermind of the September 11th attacks, as well as other large scale terrorist attacks against the U.S and its allies. The decrease in troop levels, coupled with the success of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, bring to mind the following question: Is the U.S. shifting from a strategy of Counter-Insurgency (COIN) to one of Counter-Terrorism (CT)? This, of course, invokes follow-up questions, including: 1) What is the difference between COIN and CT; and 2) What are the ramifications for U.S. foreign policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region?

Counter-Insurgency, or “COIN,” operations are generally defined as the civil-military strategy that is employed by a centralized state to defeat either a specific insurgent group or an insurgent movement consisting of multiple groups with varying degrees of commitment to an underlying ideology. COIN involves not only the use of lethal force against insurgent groups, but also the implementation of a host of development type projects that are designed to endear the population to the state so that they are not swayed to join the insurgency and may possibly even provide valuable intelligence that can be used to detect insurgent leaders. In addition to securing the populace, COIN also involves identifying and separating insurgents who can be reconciled to abandon the cause with the fanatics that cannot be reconciled and must be eliminated. Ideally, those that do abandon the insurgency can provide information about the fanatics that may help to aid in their capture or killing.

COIN campaigns are known for being extremely complex and requiring a great degree of investment by the state over a protracted period. This is due to the fact that insurgent groups often hide themselves amongst the populace, and discovering them without causing casualties to the local populace is a great challenge that can only be accomplished over an extended period. It is also rarely an exclusively military or law enforcement function, because in order to gain the trust of the population, the state must be able to provide for the survival and success of the population, to include employment and a legal infrastructure that allows for an orderly society. Therefore, successful COIN often involves “The Whole of Government.” 

The COIN mission that U.S. forces are engaged in Afghanistan is even more challenging than traditional COIN operations. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces are not only working to garner trust and confidence between the Afghan population and the U.S. government, but also between the Afghan people and their own government and security forces. This is immensely difficult, given that the current central government of Afghanistan did not exist prior to 2001, and by all objective measures, has left much to be desired in terms of its ability to serve its people and avoid being mired in controversy and allegations of corruption.

Counter-Terrorism, or “CT,” is a significantly less cumbersome and involved process. CT is defined as “Actions taken directly against terrorist networks and indirectly to influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks[.]”  Unlike COIN operations, CT operations usually do not involve the “Whole of Government,” but are rather the province of security forces and intelligence agencies. Counter-Terrorist operations are characterized by targeted raids and multiple means of intelligence gathering, such as signals intelligence (SIGNET) and human intelligence (HUMMIT). These operations typically do not require a large troop presence or investment because the scope is limited to targeting and eliminating terror networks, and not focused on creating sustainable governance and development.

A shift from COIN to CT would have significant ramifications in terms of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. A CT strategy would naturally result in a decrease in terms of the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan because the focus will shift from securing the populace to focusing exclusively on detecting and eliminating individuals and groups which pose a direct threat to the United States and its allies and interests. There are definite benefits from employing this strategy. Specifically, the cost of the war in Afghanistan will decrease substantially because the number of soldiers and civilians who are deployed there would be significantly less, and the number of missions would also be severely curtailed to only those relating to the specific intelligence and targeting activities of CT. Naturally, spending less money in Afghanistan will be seen as a great positive in this era of major federal budgetary constraints and spending cuts. In addition to less monetary cost, there will also be a decline in the number of U.S. casualties because there will be less of a military presence, and those soldiers that are there will not be actively engaged in the day to day COIN missions which expose them to dangers such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

There are, however, significant pitfalls to prematurely shifting from a COIN to a CT strategy. A departure from COIN operations could result in exposing the Afghan people to great danger because they will still face a potent insurgency in the form of the Taliban without having sufficiently equipped or trained security forces or a government that is able to successfully provide for their well-being. Leaving Afghanistan could very well offset many of the positive shifts made in that nation in terms of human rights, rule of law, and improvement in the societal status of women, and may lead to the return of a radical and abusive regime. This would be not only a failing of the Afghan government, but of the U.S. as well, because it has invested hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers’ lives in this campaign.

Ultimately, it is not clear if President Obama’s withdrawal of the surge forces by next year is indicative of a shift from a COIN to a CT strategy. The fact remains that there will still be 70,000 troops in Afghanistan after the announced withdrawal, and as of now, the missions they conduct will be of greater scope than that of CT exclusively. The decision of whether or not the U.S. should abandon the COIN campaign and adapt a CT effort is complicated and has both pros and cons. Therefore, any decision to make such a transition should only be done after a comprehensive review by the President and his national security advisors, and ideally should be devoid of short-term political or ideological concerns. However, as the Afghan War enters its 10th year, and surpasses the Vietnam Conflict to become the longest U.S. military operation in history, it becomes admittedly challenging to not listen to the increasing rancor for a reduced U.S. presence.

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